By: Rich House, with contributions from Mark and Rory Lewis Sr.
February 15-17, 2019, the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will host the 33rd annual Black History Swim Meet (BHSM) at the Takoma Park Pool in N.W. DC. This meet has been an early career feature of athletes who have later matured to qualify for the US National Junior Team, representing the US in international competition, and as well has been an event to foster the interest of developing athletes not yet registered with year-round teams.
Noted athletes including Olympic Champions Tom Dolan and Cullen Jones participated in the meet at age group levels (see the video clip below). Countless other participants have gone on to set US Age Group National Records, as well as become NCAA All-Americans, and Olympic Trials Finalists.
Mujahid El-Amin and Sabir Muhammad of Atlanta and Michael Norment, Atiba Wade, and Jason Webb of Philadelphia are just a few of those who have travelled to DC to participate in the annual competition. Moreover, the BHSM has been an instrument of outreach to under-represented communities in the US which has been officially supported as an approved meet since 1988 and is currently a fully sanctioned meet by USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport.
This past year 2018, BHSM Director, Robert M. Green received the Diversity Inclusion Award from USA Swimming. Former Meet Director Rodger McCoy, as well received the Diversity Inclusion award in 2015. Both Coach Green and Coach McCoy have acted as Head Coaches for the DC Wave Swim team and as well have managed the competitive programs in aquatics for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation indoor and outdoor pools which service athletes not necessarily registered with USA Swimming.
Reach for the Wall has interviewed Rory Lewis Sr. and Mark Lewis, two local coaches, currently with All Star Aquatics and were at the founding meet in 1987. Rory Sr. and Mark Lewis have insights to share about the history of the meet, its location, and the history of the sport in DC. As DC natives, Rory and Mark worked for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation in the 1980’s and had active participation in founding the DCR Program which sponsors the meet.
Rory Sr. & Mark Lewis
The Lewis brothers got their start in competitive swimming in DC in 1969 with the AAU registered Stafford Sea Devils. The SSD program was created as a part of the Widening Horizons Program, a philanthropic effort of the US Dept. of Defense aimed at bringing academic and athletic Mentors to provide training to local youth. Elizabeth Jane Stafford, a civilian military employee had assisted Head Coaches Jim Campbell and Stan Tinkham with the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital Women’s Swimming teams which had won consecutive National AAU Team Championships in the 1954 and ’55 seasons. Stafford was contracted to provide her services as Coach and Mentor with what was to become one of the first ethnically integrated AAU programs in the nation in 1967.
They were taught to swim by their father, Yale who was a DC native and had worked as a lifeguard in DC Rec pools in the 1940’s. As babies, their father introduced them to water skills at the Takoma pool and their mother Margaret later enrolled them in the DC Dept of Recreation Red Cross learn-to-swim offerings at the Takoma and Upshur pools until age 6 when they became able to enroll in competitive programs.
When the outdoor season arrived, the Lewis brothers were registered to swim for the Prince Mont Swim League (PMSL) team at the Takoma Pool (TPDC). PMSL is an independent league of community pools in the District of Columbia, and Charles, Montgomery, and Prince George’s Counties in MD. Both brothers swam their age-group careers representing the Takoma team 1970-1981 and at times even contributed to individual and relay PMSL League records in that era.
Under the tutelage of Jane Stafford, both Mark and Rory Sr. had interscholastic careers in the sport leading Rory Sr. to High School All-America honors for B-CC and then to the University of Alabama. Mark seized the opportunity to attend St. Albans School (STA) as a “RISK Program” (now “Skip Grant”) Scholarship recipient and matriculate to Columbia University. Skip Grant, himself a local DC sports icon, coached the Takoma PMSL team in the late 1960’s through 1975 and is represented with one of the commemorative paving bricks leading into the Takoma pool. Mark and other TPDC swimmers swam for coach Grant at STA. In turn, both brothers coached TPDC at the Takoma site 1986-1990. Mark also returned to work at STA as Asst. Dir of Aquatics where he was a fixture for 28 years from 1990-2017.
The District of Columbia reportedly has one of the highest per-capita volume of swimming facilities of any city in the US. The Dept. of Recreation still has active indoor and outdoor leagues of swimming competition and learn-to-swim classes throughout all wards of the city. Coaches Mark and Rory Sr. were drawn as well into the DC Rec. Department Swimming leagues by their SSD teammate Fred Evans who is noted by the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a Pioneer athlete in the sport.
The Lewis brothers relate that the current site of the BHM at the Takoma pool was built on the footprint of the same pool used by their TPDC PMSL team and as well by the WRAMC team in the 1950’s. Federal funding in the 1930’s led to the construction of three 8 lane 50-yard pools in the District at Anacostia, Banneker, and Takoma. In addition, an 8 lane 50-meter outdoor facility was built in East Potomac Park (Haines Point) and remains operational with the original footprint. The original Takoma pool was an 8 lane 50 yd outdoor pool, AAU National Championship meets were held at the facility before the 1960’s. The Anacostia pool in SE, DC was razed in the 1970’s, while the Banneker Pool in NW, DC is still in operation with the original footprint. The Takoma pool was upgraded by the city in 2003 to the current indoor 50-meter competition venue.
The BHSM represents the “each one teach one” model of community development. As individual athletes learn and mature in their skills they grow into adults prepared to contribute to society in valuable ways; likewise, teams grow and mature into environments that promote opportunities for all within their community. Learn-to-swim programs evolve into competitive opportunities providing training and enrichment which may lead to opportunities for scholarships and admission to institutions of higher education. When asked to reflect on the meet’s 30 year history, the Lewis brothers relate that the cycle of growth continues. Swimmers of the DCPR team of the first BHSM are now coaches on the deck leading the next generation of athletes through personal development.
The Mentors and Vision
According to the brothers, the goal of preparing for college was in fact the primary intent of their grandparents when they registered them for SSD. On those cold, and early mornings, freezing in the early June waters at the Takoma Pool, the boys were consistently reminded by their parents that they faced such challenges under the demands and tutelage of coaches Grant and Stafford in a long-term plan to prepare for academic opportunities at the collegiate level. In turn, the legacy of empowerment and opportunity provided by facing the challenges of the sport of Swimming, the example of and gratitude towards their Mentors Jane Stafford and Skip Grant led them to their 30+ years as local coaches in the sport.
Dr. Fred Evans, PHD. was a Swimming All-American for the St. Johns HS in 1972 who became the first African-American Swimmer to win an NCAA Swimming Championship when he swam for Chicago State University, earning a DII title in the 100 Breast in 1975. SSD alum Dr. Robert “Bobby” Murray, MD. set Metropolitan HS Championship records representing the Wilson HS and then went on to become an AAU Junior-National Champion and an NCAA All-American at Univ. of Michigan. Both Bobby and Fred were finalists in the US Olympic Trials in Swimming in 1980 and, likewise both worked in DC Dept Rec facilities as instructors and coaches in the 1970’s. This example of teammates led the Lewis brothers on the path to do the same as instructors and coaches within DC Department of Recreation.
As athletes walk into the facility this weekend, they will step upon the bricks at the entrance naming but a few contributors to the sport in DC and will share in the legacy at the foundation of the meet. A legacy which began in part with a coach Thomas Hughes who as a young athlete competed in City Swimming Championship event representing the Rosedale Pool at the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach in 1915. Coach Hughes then later earned a graduate degree at Cornell Univ. and returned to lead DC swimmers to collegiate levels of the sport in the 1940’s.
In turn, some of those swimmers for coach Hughes as well became coaches who were peers to Jane Stafford providing instruction in the sport in DC in the 1960’s. Coaches such as Clarence Bell at Dunbar HS and Stanley Gainer at Cardozo HS nurtured many young athletes in age-group to collegiate careers in the sport. Coach Gainer in particular had a successful athletic career at the Tennessee State University, but graduated in 1953 before the NCAA Championships were desegregated. Leroy Jones, a Tennessee St. teammate of Coach Gainer participated in the first integrated NCAA Swimming Championships in 1954 and 1955. Coach Hughes reported that Coach Gainer as a Swimmer would have qualified as well.
The efforts of DC Coaches such as Bell, Gainer, and Hughes enriched the lives of their students leading individuals such as Roy Fagin, Lorn Hill, Dr. Calvin Rolark, Dr. William Rumsey and others to found the BHSM in 1987. Although work is still required to reduce and prevent the drowning accidents that often occur when swimming instruction is not available, the stereotypes and restrictions that limited diversity in the sport before the 1980’s have been surpassed.
In early 2019, the short-movie ‘A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim’ debuted online. This is about the personal journey of Frank ‘Ed Accura’ Awuah and his fears, and anxiety about swimming.
The aim of the film is to eradicate the negative views associated with black people and swimming as well as to encouraging more to learn to swim thus reducing the numbers of deaths by drowning. For more information visit the film website.
The ‘community swimming team’ is a model to develop the social capital of youth and empower them towards adult life is now a fully ethnically diverse communal system in the DMV. Moreover, with the support of USA Swimming, programs such as the BHSM have successfully endeavored to support the expansion of such programs throughout the US.
Brick-by-brick the foundation has been built and new names replace the old. Few at the meet this weekend will know of those before them but all will share in the legacy and traditions of excellence entailed therein. Some athletes will break records and leave a mark for others to pursue and still others will learn a craft and have careers as coaches and administrators who will enrich the lives of others.
Additional Press clippings/photographs provided by Mark Lewis: